The Context of Hubbert’s Peak in World Oil Forecast

(Note: This is a post I wrote which is published in today’s ASPO-USA newsletter.)

Recently when I was reading some of the papers M. King Hubbert wrote, one thing struck me was the context in which he made his forecast regarding how world oil supply would peak and decline. He made this forecast in the context of having plenty of other fuel supply from other sources already developed, to offset this decline.

The three graphs shown in this paper are from Hubbert’s 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels. Based on Figure 30, it is clear that he expected nuclear energy to raise total energy production to a very high level, even before fossil fuels began to decline.

In his 1962 report, Energy Resources – A Report to the Committee on Natural Resources, Hubbert writes about the possibility of having so much cheap energy that it would be possible to essentially reverse combustion–-combine energy plus carbon dioxide and water to produce new types of fuel plus water. If we could do this, it would be possible to fix our high CO2 levels and produce lots of fuel for our current vehicles, even without fossil fuels.

Lewis Strauss, chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, coined the term, “too cheap to meter” in 1954, when describing nuclear electricity. Evidently, Hubbert’s view was somewhat similar.

The reason this high continuing fuel supply is important is because it means that there would never be a situation where there would be insufficient energy for food production and for industrial uses if fossil fuel use declined.  Because of this, his “Hubbert Curve” of world oil production only needed to consider geological conditions affecting oil supply decline, not indirect impacts that could also affect oil production.

If, as Hubbert had hoped, a new fuel source had taken over before the down-slope in world oil supply was in close view, then the nature of the world down-slope could be expected to similar to the nature of the individual area down slopes that have been observed in the past, because geological factors would be the major factors determining the nature of the down slope.

The problem if there is not an alterative fuel supply that easily fills the role of the oil supply, then we start encountering many secondary, “above ground,” effects that also impact oil production, as soon as oil supply stops rising as fast as it has in the past. For example, oil prices can be expected to rise when world supply stops rising, and these rising oil prices can be expected to affect food prices as well. High food prices are one of the reasons today for political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. High oil prices also tend to lead to recession and unemployment in oil-importing nations. Eventually, there is a possibility that without sufficient oil, it will be difficult to produce sufficient food for the world’s population.

Hubbert’s Curve still remains important because it provides something close to an upper limit to the amount of oil that can be produced. The reason I say “close to” an upper limit because there is still the possibility of technological advances, making new types of production economic. Experience to date shows that the role of these advances is likely to be fairly small, though.

If adequate substitutes are not available, there is an increased likelihood that the down slope in oil production will be affected by “above ground” factors that will make the down slope steeper than predicted by Hubbert’s Curve alone. When the book Limits to Growth by Meadows and others was published in 1972, it attempted to model the impacts of some of these alternative factors as well. Its indications were for a steep down slope, as various limits were met.

Hubbert does give some indication of the range of possible outcomes in his 1956 paper.

In Figure 61, “solar energy” seems to mean solar, wind, tidal, wood, biofuels, and other energy we get on a day-to-day basis, indirectly from the sun. His figure seems to suggest that solar energy would basically act as a fossil fuel extender, and would not last much beyond the time fossil fuels last. Another fuel, such as nuclear, would be needed to keep total energy production high for the long term.

Hubbert does not give us a “redrawn” Figure 20, taking into account secondary impacts if good fuel substitutes are not available, as fossil fuels decline. It seems to me, though, that if he had considered the special case of not having good fuel substitutes available, he likely would have had to adjust the right-hand tail of this distribution downward, taking into account the fact that secondary impacts, such as political disruption and lack of food and water, would likely negatively impact the amount of oil actually produced.  This would be difficult to do with any degree of accuracy, because of the many interactions going on at once. Analyses of the type used in Limits to Growth suggest that this downward adjustment could be very significant, however.

Because of these issues, it seems to me that we need to use caution in making statements like, “About half of the world’s oil supply will still be left, even when the world’s oil supply begins declining,” or “Oil supply will always be available, just at a higher price.” What Hubbert’s Curve does is provide an upper limit for what will be available; it really doesn’t tell us much about what oil availability will be based on real-world conditions following the peak. It could be quite a bit lower.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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13 Responses to The Context of Hubbert’s Peak in World Oil Forecast

  1. Arthur Robey says:

    Hubert might have been right on two counts.
    That oil would peak 30 years after peak discovery and that an alternative would allow a steady state use.
    That energy will be Chemically aided Nuclear.

    http://www.lenr-canr.org/News.htm

    I have now studied the literature and am confident.

    However Professor James Lovelock (The Gaia hypothesis) said that we will not be able to save the planet, and Professor Steven Hawking said that we have to get off it. (Or become the late Homo Sapiens.)
    http://www.ted.com/talks/stephen_hawking_asks_big_questions_about_the_universe.html (@6min40sec.)

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Arthur,

      It seems that you fail to appreciate that some of us will not have to fear harm as long as we have the right kind of faith. When true believers were threatened in the past, they got some help:

      “I will sweep away everything in all your land,” says the LORD. “I will sweep away both people and animals alike. Even the birds of the air and the fish in the sea will die. I will reduce the wicked to heaps of rubble, along with the rest of humanity,” says the LORD. “I will crush Judah and Jerusalem with my fist and destroy every last trace of their Baal worship. I will put an end to all the idolatrous priests, so that even the memory of them will disappear. For they go up to their roofs and bow to the sun, moon, and stars. They claim to follow the LORD, but then they worship Molech, too. So now I will destroy them! And I will destroy those who used to worship me but now no longer do. They no longer ask for the LORD’s guidance or seek my blessings.” (Zephaniah 1:2-6 NLT)

      So, you’ll notice the part about killing birds and animals happening now with unprecedented species extinction rates. And, those “wicked” and “idolatrous”
      folks are also getting what they deserve. It should not be too long now before the faithful get rewarded with what is left after the LORD has finished his wrath thing.

      So, we have the fundamentalist on one side and Hawkings on the other. The first expects to inherit the earth and the second thinks Mr Spock will come to the rescue.

      Too bad we can’t concentrate on our actual problems and potential solutions.

      • Arthur Robey says:

        “Common sense is a collection of prejudices acquired by age 18.”
        Albert Einstein.

        “Seek and do not stop looking until you find. When you find you will be perplexed. When perplexed, astounded, and rule over all.” Gospel according to Thomas

        Common sense is not going to get us out of this trap, bicycle Dave.

        • Bicycle Dave says:

          Arthur, I liked the Einstein quote! And you are probably right that “common sense” is not going to do the trick. And given the general lack of appreciation for science, our prognosis is not real glowing.

  2. The ‘hidden’ lesson that Mr Hubbert teaches us is that any reconciliation of energy supply and demand is going to include rethinking the demand side.

    What we have and use satisfies every demand other than ‘least use’. Nothing approaches nature’s ‘parsimony of needs’. Imagine a (human) company making a spider web. Somewhere in the process would be a furnace heating some compound thousands of degrees centigrade. There would be waste and a factory’s sound and fury.

    The spider quietly secretes its web from digested bugs @ room temperature with a minimum amount of fuss. It’s done this for tens of millions of years and will do so tens of millions more after the furious humans have vanished. Its EROEI is very small but just enough.

    We humans never think ‘spider’, always imagining the forge and the industrial plant instead: large begetting larger still. We are too insecure to think of anything that other than the exercise of power for its own sake.

    This is where the peak oil arguments tend to wind up: having to choose between holding onto the image we create about ourselves and actually leaving self- images behind. Growing up and accepting, in other words …

    • You are right. The problem is that BAU stops working fairly early on, and we have to return to what nature gives us, which is very different. The Hubbert Curve model assumes BAU continues indefinitely.

  3. Jerry McManus says:

    Good post Gail. For the Hubbert analysis I would only add that he later changed his mind about nuclear, mainly for the reason that there was no accounting for the costs of waste disposal and de-commissioning of the plants.

    Very prescient, and something the Limits to Growth report is also very clear about, namely that the increasing costs of growth will eventually overwhelm our ability to cope.

    Another important consideration is the possible “behavior modes” of the global system:

    Possible Modes of Approach of a Population to its Carrying Capacity

    Given that the ecological footprint of the global population is presently above the Earth’s carrying capacity, will current policies lead us to a relatively peaceful, orderly oscillation, without forcing drastic declines in population and economy? Or will the global society experience collapse?

    From Limits to Growth: 30 year update, Meadows et. al.

    What isn’t reflected in these modes is the contribution of fossil fuels to a dramatic but short term increase in the Earth’s carrying capacity, what Catton termed “ghost acerage” and “energy slaves” in his book “Overshoot“, giving a dynamic more like this:

    Short Term Increase of Carrying Capacity by Fossil Fuels

    However, as you point out, even that trajectory may be considered a best case scenario which has no accounting for the effects of human fear, ignorance, and intolerance. For a good look at a worst case scenario I highly recommend “A Year in Treblinka” by Yankel Wiernik.

    • I noticed Hubbert changed his mind about nuclear, but it was not clear to me that he really came up with something very specific to fill in the “gap”. He was still taking about a very high potential population (about 15 billion) in his 1976 paper, without mentioning nuclear.

      I think from where we are now, we would have a hard time coming up with anything close to filling the gap, other than perhaps some version of thorium/nuclear that works very well, and can be made to produce liquid fuels as well.

  4. Bill Simpson says:

    Living during the down slope of that oil production curve would be bad enough, but the reality of world oil output is likely to be far worse. If you were one of the few oil exporting countries with significant oil reserves, and it became obvious that peak oil had been reached, why would you not cut oil output, so as to drive the price up even faster than it would be rising if you produced all the oil you could. Remember, there will be no Saudi Arabia that could fill any demand gap by opening the their tap. Once peak oil becomes obvious, any exporter will be able to drive the price higher just by calling a press conference and announcing a reduction in their oil exports. The price will rise to more than make up for the money they would lose by selling less physical oil. It becomes a no – lose situation for any exporter. They would be fools not to cut back on exports. The great danger will be that the idea will soon spread, and oil exports will collapse. Once peak oil is recognized, we will be in a different world because there is no substitute for it in transportation. Oil moves nearly everything.
    Of course, I haven’t discussed the economic consequences of a very high oil price. Suffice to say, that since is so critical to transport people and goods, as the price begins to rise nearly continuously, people will be forced to spend an ever increasing portion of their income on gasoline, diesel, cooking fuel, and heating oil. Demand for everything else will be reduced. What happens when demand is reduced? Jobs disappear. Unemployment will easily reach 25%. Few industries will be safe.
    I could be wrong. I hope that I am. But I can’t see how a major decline in oil production won’t be the greatest crisis we have ever faced, because our civilization has developed around cheap oil for the last century. During that time, the population of the Earth has tripled. We have become as dependent on oil, as we have on electricity. Cut off the electricity in the developed world, and 90% of the population will be dead after 2 months. That won’t happen with oil. But the standard of living will fall substantially. If I had to guess, I would say that peak oil will begin to be felt between 2015 and 2022 depending on the oil output from Iraq. Iraq is the only country with large, easy to access, underutilized oil reserves.
    Should you want to read a very good, short, cheap book on the subject, as it relates to the economy, pick up a copy of ‘Peak Oil and the Second Great Depression (2010-2030)’, by Kenneth D. Worth. It was so fascinating that I read it twice. It was written by an attorney who became interested in the subject of peak oil when he recognized how dangerous a crisis it will be.
    And what is our Government doing about all this? Virtually nothing. Good luck. You’re going to need it. Bill near Slidell, LA.

  5. Ed Pell says:

    Even if we do come up with an alternative energy system (I think we will but it will take time and the transition will be painful) we will have to have a stable population number due to other reasons like pollution and soil erosion. In medieval England this was done by strictly defined land ownership. The gangs of unlanded are not allowed to live in the barons greenwood. That is what the sheriff is for.

  6. Arthur Robey says:
  7. Arthur Robey says:

    Further you might be interested in this piece on the future of alt energy.

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/blog/post/2011/01/the-future-of-renewable-energy

    which links to Dr George H Miley who works on warm fusion. (800C).

    http://npre.illinois.edu/faculty/miley.php

    It seems we have been lied to, again. You do not need multi national , multi billion dollar organisation to achieve fusion.
    Now why would they lie, other than control of the worlds energy resources?
    Well too bad, so sad. They are being forced to relinquish control both by the Internet and by the fact that chemical energy is so yesterday.

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